Thursday, January 7
While first thinking about charities in early 2011, arguing that the spending may not be in line with democracy, I felt very much alone. Politicians and citizens raved about big charities. I felt ungrateful, cynical, but still felt compelled to write a story about a good woman who is hurt, overseeing a foundation and manipulating billions of dollars for funding in the developing world. A string of news stories since February of last year, when Allure of Deceit was released, suggest my critique of big philanthropy may not have gone far enough.
George Joseph interviews Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, for the Progressive and writes:
"As institutions like the Gates Foundation take increasingly leading roles in policymaking and governance, McGoey argues, the line between traditional notions of charity and top-down consolidation of power becomes unclear; and with this largely unchecked influence, philanthro-capitalists, like Bill Gates, have pushed countries across the world to accept market based solutions for crises like education inequity and disease proliferation—despite evidence that these problems are often rooted in actions taken by those philanthro-capitalists themselves."
McGoey points out that giving can be shrouded in secrecy, that it can be strategic and designed to support goals of donors; wealth is often transferred among the rich, and taxpayers subsidize charitable endeavors by giving up tax revenues. The system reinforces inequality.
The interview concludes: "The amassment of wealth doesn’t naturally endow any individual with leadership ”rights.” But that is what’s happening: the assumption that wealth confers exceptional public duties and that we owe deference to individuals who part with their fortunes. That assumption has no merit—at least not in a democratic nation."
Philanthropy is a worthy tool, and becomes treacherous when lacking in transparency or applied in selective ways. In defense of some major charitable organizations, some programs tackle problems head-on and worldwide - like the Gates Foundation goals to eliminate polio or encourage libraries. Other programs are dangerously selective and often mask political agendas.
In a world with limited resources, people must decide if problems, especially "absolute poverty," are best solved by government or charitable giving. Do philanthropy and the associated lobbying weaken government and come with hidden agendas?
Philanthropy is a worthy tool, but not when it diminishes respect for government.
Photo of a Nairobi slum, courtesy of Africa.org.
Friday, December 11
They worry about the future - not just for themselves but generations beyond.
Rising student debt and a shrinking number of good jobs don't help. The world's population expanded - from 1 billion in 1800 to near 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion people today poised to reach 9 billion by 2050. The increase in population does not ensure more jobs. Globalization in communications ensures that many consumers will chase after the same small set of books, movies or songs. Technology sucks the creativity out of work and even eliminates jobs at retail outlets like service stations or grocery stores just as computers reduced the need for secretaries or typists and software increasingly threatens employment in accounting, engineering, architecture, finance and other fields.
At the same time, governments and corporations tussle over benefits while taking on excessive debt for wars and infrastructure that may not serve future generations well. Businesses and states under-fund pensions. Students are urged to explore nursing as a stable career but new graduates struggle to find full-time employment as hospitals limit work to part-time. Legislators insist that governments can no longer afford programs enjoyed by older adults.
Few leaders anticipate or plan ahead for trends emerging over the next 50 or more years.
At the same time, the world's climate is changing. Weather disasters, food shortages or conflict over a resource as basic as water could break out and add to the waves of desperate refugees seeking new homes.
COP21 is wrapping up, and by various reports, more global leaders are serious about addressing climate change. Others suggest the action does not go far enough.
More than one young adult has expressed fear that it's too late to prevent or slow a changing climate. Many recognize that wilderness is shrinking as populations expand. The collective experience with wilderness tightens with every generation. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, recalls his child pointing out that the young did not enjoy the woods as much as their parents did:
"He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that
seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.
Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically.
The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—
but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That's exactly the opposite of how it was
when I was a child.... Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature."
More young adults adapt to the new uncertainties by learning to live with less and do more to interact with and record their experiences with nature. Many relish the new simplicity and deliberate over each purchase asking, Does this item make my life easier or does it make my life more complicated? Smart consumers do not overextend with housing, clothing, food and entertainment. A DIY economy is emerging. Many young adults, particularly the educated, vow they won't bring children into a world that is less comfortable than the one to which they were born.
Allure of Deceit tackles all these issues of globalization and more from the point of view of a few families in a remote Afghan village.
The economy is shifting amid uncertainty, and most young adults do not complain. The rest of us could learn from their examples.
Photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Wednesday, November 18
"To determine the prevalence of self-induced abortions in Texas, investigators surveyed women and asked them whether they had ever tried to end a pregnancy outside a clinical setting, or if their best friend had," reports Amanda Holpuch for the Guardian. "The best-friend measure was included because women tend to under-report abortions in studies."
Surveys are less than reliable, but methods for tallying such incidents are simply not available. As described in Allure of Deceit, a few women could be successful in terminating their own pregancy. Others fail and go on to deliver a child. The study suggests that between 100,000 and 240,000 women in the state of 27 million tried to induce an abortion at home.
Allure of Deceit, set in a fictional remote village in Afghanistan, takes an unconventional look at the topic.
The little girl was plump, content, alert. Before finding Shareen, Zahira had once believed that abortion was kinder than adoption. A mother could never trust a stranger with her child, and thoughts of Shareen with another woman were abhorrent.
Zahira had rescued the child not once, but twice. Their relationship was exceptional, though it was ironic how much Zahira sounded like the women who opposed abortion for others but vehemently justified their own.
The suspense novel begins at a lavish charity event and a Texas woman's hope to secure funding for a charity designed to introduce natural family planning in Afghanistan. The director of the largest foundation in the world uses such activities to investigate the death of her only son. His fortune led to the foundation's creation.
The US total fertility rate, the average number of children born to women during child-bearing years, has been in decline since the 2007-2008 recession, going from 2.09 children per woman in 2006 and 2007 to 2.01 in 2014, suggests CIA World Factbook and Mundi. Texas, at 2.07, ranks among the 10 US states with highest fertility rates.
Afghanistan's fertility rate stands at 4.9 for 2013 down from its height of 7.9 around 2000 when the Taliban controlled the country, notes World Bank data. The CIA puts the country's fertility rate estimate at 5.33 children per women. Countries that have higher fertility rates than Afghanistan: Niber, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Malawi, Angola. Texas's rate at 2.07 is less than rates for France and Guyana, higher than those in Grenada or Libya.
Places with higher fertility rates have younger populations and, with a median age of 33.6, Texas is the second youngest after Utah, according to the US Census.
The median age for the US is 37.8. For Afghanistan it is 18.4 - meaning half of Afghan people are children, according to CIA estimates. The Texas median age compares with Chile's, Greenland's, North Korea, Palau and Saint Lucia.
Fertility rates influence a society's environmental, security and economic conditions. Good governance requires monitoring demographics for long-term policy planning, and problems including waves of immigration, when young populations do not receive adequate education, health care and other services.
Photo of children in Afghanistan following a patrol by coalition forces and a provincial reconstruction team in Laghman Province 2011, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane and Wikimedia Commons. Fear of Beauty is the story of a provincial reconstruction team in Helmand and an Afghan woman desperate to learn how to read after the death of her son on the night before he is supposed to leave for school.
Monday, November 16
One CIA estimate puts the Islamic State manpower at 31,500. By comparison, the United Nations estimates "that 7.6 million people are internally displaced" and "more than half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders," reports Mercy Corps.
Countries including the United States, Jordan, France and many others target Islamic State sites with air strikes. But air strikes are imprecise. Hitting civilians is inevitable, especially in battling an opponent that lacks a code of conduct.
Reporting for AP, Vivian Salama and Zeina Karam report on the tragic inevitability as described by Airwars, a group that monitors the war against the Islamic State and tracks civilian casualties.
"The coalition's war against ISIL has inevitably caused civilian casualties, certainly far more than the two deaths Centcom presently admits to," notes [the Airwars website]. " Yet it's also clear that in this same period, many more civilians have been killed by Syrian and Iraqi government forces, by Islamic State and by various rebel and militia groups operating on both sides of the border."
So far, Airwars reports more than 8,000 strikes, estimating 20,000 Islamic State deaths and up to 200 deaths.
Some context: Totals of civilian deaths caused by the Islamic State are notably lacking.
Also, monitoring groups suggest that the Syrian government and Assad regime are responsible for many more deaths than the Islamic State - an estimated 250,000 during the four-year civil war in Syria. "Between January and July , Assad’s military and pro-government militias killed 7,894 people, while the Islamic State killed 1,131, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain," reports Hugh Naylor for the Washington Post.
Such casualty counts are likely low, with reports of mass graves found in areas near Sinjar, overtaken by Iraqi Kurdish forces: One is reported to contain 78 women between the ages of 40 and 80 years old and the other had bodies of about 50 men, both likely Yazidis. Authorities anticipate finding other grave sites, reports Nabih Bulos for the Los Angeles Times.
After the attacks in Paris that killed more than 125 and injured more than 300, the international community will likely join with Russia, and targeting the Islamic State will take priority over removal of Assad as Syria's leader.
At least eight governors in the United States are making moves to block Syrian refugees in Texas, Massachusetts, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Michigan, reports Nolan D. McCaskill for Politico.
Many contend that ground troops are required for thorough defeat of the Islamic State, but citizens throughout the West resist sending their soldiers and expect Muslim nations in the Middle East to defend their territory - though it must be noted that the conflict in Syria is highly complex as the United States supports Kurdish rebels and Turkey, a member of NATO and US ally, targets those same fighters described as successful against the Islamic State. Russia, too, targets rebels who oppose the Assad regime.
An imperfect solution for the Syrian refugee crisis, one grounded in gender and age bias: conduct screenings and open borders for women with children under age 15 and adults older than age 50.A tough for the international community.
Terrorist attacks on civilian targets in Europe, North America and beyond are anticipated, too. The Islamic State is a disturbing problem global in scale.
"Attacks by Islamic State terrorists in Syria, Iraq and beyond pose consequences for refugees fleeing communities throughout the Middle East and moderate Muslims," YaleGlobal reminds. "Globalization of communications, travel and more ensures that regarding violence, hatred, terrorism as routine for the region with a population of more than 200 million can threaten global security."
Photo of refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station in Hungary, courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov and Wikimedia Commons.
Thursday, October 22
One line of questioning during a hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi is telling. Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State and presidential candidate, testified in response to questions from Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.
Clinton suggested she could not micro-manage or second-guess the assessments from security professional on the ground, and Westmoreland insisted on protection for US facilities such as the compound in Benghazi.
Westmoreland: I'm not saying shut it down. I'm saying protect it.... And when you say security professionals, I'm not trying to be disparaging with anybody, but I don't know who those folks were but ...
Clinton: Well, they are people who risked their lives.
Westmoreland: ... but it's just my little opinion that they were not very professional when it came to protecting people
Clinton later returned to defending capabilities of security personnel protecting diplomatic and other US staff.
Clinton: I must add, Congressman, the diplomatic security professionals are among the best in the world. I would put them up against anybody. And I just cannot allow any comment to be in the record in any way criticizing or disparaging them. They have kept Americans safe in two wars and in a lot of terrible situations over the last many years. I trust them with my life, you trust them with yours when you are on Codels. they deserve better, and they deserve all the support that Congress can give them because they are doing a really hard job very well.
Westmoreland: Well, ma'am, all I can say is that they miss something here and we lost four Americans."
The committee was established to investigate events surrounding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi September 11, 2012. Assignments in countries with extremists and insurgengies are difficult. Any encounter, even ones with a child, can turn into a deadly suicide bombing or attack. Security teams must constantly observe surroundings and nuances to make instant assessments. Security teams must also assess the courage of those whom they protect.
Such decisions are a constant worry for the Army Ranger in Fear of Beauty:
As they turned the corner, a young girl emerged from the brush, unnoticed by the driver or Cameron. Joey gripped his M16, and Habib's hand covered his side arm.... Smiling, she approached the Humvee, running her hand along the side and letting it rest there, as if posing for a photo.... Startled the driver turned. A more skittish soldier might have shot her - he fervent wish of every extremist.
Old rules or codes of conduct do not apply in conflict areas like Afghanistan and Libya and even the security forces on the ground struggle over such decisions.
Photo of Benghazi, courtesy of Dennixo and Wikimedia Commons.
Wednesday, September 30
The passengers had little choice but to listen to the message on impending threats, the need for caution, fear and shame. He railed on about Jeremiah's warnings, frequently pausing to lean over a passenger and challenge the individual with the question, "Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?"
The incident was nerve-wracking, calling to mind similar incidents in northern areas of Africa, where extremists board buses and demand passengers to recite a quote or two from the Koran to prove they are not infidels.
Some passengers pointedly ignored him. Most nodded nervously. He did not confront my friend, but the sermon went on for 90 minutes, intruding on any plans for passengers to converse, read or contemplate the scenery. Shortly before his destination, he passed a hat for donations. Not all gave. Videos of the clean-cut preachers in dress shirts and ties dating back a few years can be found on YouTube, and my friend was told the preachers receive a free ride in exchange for a sermon.
There are varying statistics for the demographics of Zambia: The CIA World Factbook suggests that 75 percent are Protestant, 20 percent Catholic, and the remaining a mix of Hindu, Muslim and indigenous tribal religions. Others report the percentage of those who are non-Christian may run as high as 12 percent. No surprise that there are reports of Muslim preachers are taking up the practice, too.Christianity is the country's official religion, but the constitution protects the freedom of conscience or religion for all. Religious instruction is required for grades one through nine: "Religious education focus on Christian teachings but also incorporates comparative studies of Islam, Hinduism, and traditional beliefs," reports the Zambia 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.
A lack of consideration by any one religion can diminish faith in general among the wider populace. A generous spirit, open minds, support of equality for all including women and men, common courtesy, all these can restore one's faith in human nature and the power of religion.
In Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, characters must wrestle with doubt over longstanding religious beliefs, especially when values come in conflict with protecting the ones they love. And as an author, I feel very fortunate that few suggest that the topic is inappropriate for a mystery novel. I had one memorable experience a few weeks after Fear of Beauty. I was on a panel for a book festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, an older woman snapped, questioning why I would even think about writing about the Muslims in Afghanistan. But such a response has been a rarity. Most readers express curiosity about the books - and especially so in rural areas of Michigan, North Dakota, Georgia and Louisiana. So few are closed-minded or mean-spirited, and as I have said before on these pages, our values are strengthened by comparing and contrasting those held by others.
Jeremiah offered another warning that may not have been mentioned during the bus ride: "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." 6:13.
Photo of a road in southern Zambia, courtesy of Amantia Phalloides, Namwianga Mission and Wikimedia Commons.
Thursday, September 24
Every billion changes the character of the world, reducing the area of wild and open space, leaving fewer resources for other species and future generations.
Many applaud the Pope's call to for action to stem climate change, yet "One of America’s leading scientists has dismissed as 'raving nonsense' the pope’s call for action on climate change – so long as the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics rejects the need for population control," writes Suzanne Goldenberg for the Guardian. "In a commentary in the journal Nature, Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argues that Pope Francis is simply wrong in trying to fight climate change without also addressing the additional strain on global resources from population rise."
The population of less developed nations is growing at a faster pace than in wealthier nations of Europe, North America and parts of Asia: "There is not a single issue among the sustainable development goals – including poverty, hunger, housing, education, employment, health, gender equality, human rights and environment – that would not benefit from reducing high rates of population growth," writes Joseph Chamie for YaleGlobal.
As explained in Allure of Deceit, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks such trends. Extremely high or low fertility rates, those that out of balance with resources like water or food can pose a security risk for neighboring nations. The countries with the highest fertility rates:
Niger, average of 6.89 children per woman
Mali, 6.16 children
Burkina Faso, 5.93
South Sudan, 5.43
Notably, Afghanistan's fertility rate fell sharply, near half, since the US invasion in 2001. Countries with the lowest fertility rates:
Hong Kong, 1.17
South Korea, 1.25
British Virgin Islands 1.25
Bosnia and Herezegovina, 1.26
From the first chapter, Allure of Deceit explores population growth and family planning from the perspectives of a remote village in Afghanistan, a conservative director of a small charity, and the director of one of the world's largest charitable foundations:
Pearl Hanson was a Texas conservative, practical and stubborn. Despite limited tools and her brash ways, her program had raised awareness about the economic benefits of small families. The link between wealth and family planning prompted even devout women to pursue methods of contraception on their own. Pearl understood and didn't cast blame.
The book is a murder mystery layered with social mystery. Why do some believers bitterly oppose family planning and contraception for others and yet practice these techniques on their own? why do they resist making contraception freely available for society as a whole, especially the young, and then express surprise about unwanted pregnancies? why do they refuse to fund programs on family planning at the national or international level and then resist the desperate migrants who long to escape conflict and terror in the Middle East or poverty and hunger and lack of opportunities in Africa? why do some resist arguments that access to birth control reduces abortion? William Saletan writes for Slate about studies on the failure rate for specific methods of contraception and how that correlates with abortion.
Shame is a powerful weapon and one that knows no boundaries. Once a powerful authority like a parent or politician or Pope suggests that contraception is wrong, the sentiment spreads, planting fear and doubt. War and economic uncertainty spread doubt, too. Women do not want to commit to raising a child in a dangerous world. So thoughtful women, including many Catholics in the United States, ignore those who wield shame. One way or another, mothers strive to be responsible and avoid having children they cannot afford.
Photo of Afghan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard and Wikimedia Commons.